Marxism A-Z

W is for War

18 September 2018

War is a bloody and brutal business. Our rulers deliberately airbrush the images we get of the wars they are involved in. The Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, was presented by the media as a computer-choreographed fireworks show in aid of “democracy”. Later, the pictures of hundreds of mangled and charred bodies on the road to Basra came to light. Iraqis had been wantonly slaughtered by the US, British and other forces.

War does not just kill the innocent. It brutalises the fighters – a fact revealed in every new blood-and-gore paperback from an ex-SAS man.

Unlike our rulers, Marxists never try to prettify war in order to justify it. We tell the truth. Part of that truth is that war is an inevitable product of a class divided society and a world divided into competing nations. It is also a necessary part of the struggle to overthrow class society.

Unlike pacifists – who reject all wars – socialists oppose some wars, support others and will be prepared to wage war against the capitalist enemy. Our aim is to create a world free of national divisions and in which classes have been abolished: world socialism. Only such a world can get rid of war altogether and to get it we will have to fight, arms in hand.

Clausewitz, a nineteenth century German soldier and philosopher, provided an important insight into wars when he wrote, “We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”

Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky all took Clausewitz’s insistence that war was not something separate from politics as their starting point for analysing wars. They went on to analyse the class character of each particular war. Writing during the carnage of the First World War, Lenin noted that the key questions were, “what caused that war, what classes are waging it, and what historico-economic conditions gave rise to it.”

By posing these questions, Lenin drew the conclusion that there were both just and unjust wars. In the former category he included wars fought by nations oppressed by imperialism – Ireland’s war for independence for example.

In the latter category he pointed to the war then being waged between the major imperialist powers. He recognised that beneath the superficial question of “who fired the first shot?”, lay the important fact that those powers were fighting each other in order to divide the world between themselves.

Today in Iraq, the repulsive tyranny of Saddam Hussein has been replaced by the direct colonial oppression of US and UK imperialism. The first Gulf War was fought by the imperialist-led coalition to keep Iraq in this subordinate state and end any threat to their exploitation of the area.

The imperialists’ claim that they were fighting for democracy against a cruel dictator was a lie. Kuwait – the country invaded by Iraq and “liberated” by imperialism – was a vile dictatorship in which workers and peasants were denied any democratic rights whatsoever. Its royal family, restored by the “liberation”, set about reinforcing its dictatorship under the protection of the USA and Britain.

The importance of this example is that it demonstrates why Marxists were not simply against the war in the Gulf. We were against imperialism’s war on Iraq, a war waged for oil and political control of the Gulf region. But we supported Iraq’s war against imperialism. This was a just war – even though it was being waged under a leadership which we want to see destroyed by the workers and peasants of Iraq.

Only by a class analysis, an understanding of the politics of each war, can we understand why some wars are just and some are unjust and only thus can we determine whose side we are on, if any.

This method has proved vital for revolutionaries in many wars, but none more so than the two world wars of this century. Both, despite the so called “anti-fascist” character of the Allied war effort in the Second World War, were unjust wars as far as Britain, the USA, France, Germany, Japan and the other imperialist states were concerned.

Neither world war was fought to preserve democracy. Both were fought in order to re-divide the world for exploitation between the imperialist powers. They were unjust, imperialist wars.

As Lenin put it with regard to the First World War:

“Picture to yourselves a slave owner who owned 100 slaves warring against a slave owner who owned 200 slaves for a more ‘just’ distribution of slaves. Clearly, the application of the term ‘defensive’ war, or ‘war for the defence of the fatherland’, in such a case would be historically false, and in practice would be sheer deception of the common people… Precisely in this way are the present day imperialist bourgeoisie deceiving the peoples by means of ‘national’ ideology and the term ‘defence of the fatherland’ in the present war between slave owners for fortifying and strengthening slavery.”

Lenin formulated a policy for Marxists that went beyond simply analysing the class character of wars and supporting or opposing them. He developed the policy of revolutionary defeatism – waging the class struggle in your own country against your own bourgeoisie even at the cost of it being defeated in war – as a means of creating the conditions under which imperialist war could be transformed into a civil war, a war by workers on their own ruling class.

Marxists stand for revolution. Revolution will be resisted by capitalists who stand to lose their fortunes, their privileges and their political rule. Always and everywhere they will fight arms in hand to defeat workers’ revolution.

Civil war to defeat them will be necessary. It is a stage towards the creation of a world free from war, and such an objective justifies the use of warlike means to achieve it.

That is also why Marxists are not pacifists. We know we cannot defeat a powerful enemy other than by revolution and civil war. As Engels put it: “If the working class was to overcome the bourgeoisie it would first have to master the art and strategy of war.” To say otherwise is a deception, one that will result in wars without end.

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